Jan 302013

Screen time can have a very broad definition. The way things have worked out in our family I can narrow down the spectrum pretty quickly.

Watching TV

Simulated Television Viewing: Do Not Attempt

We don’t have television in the sense that our home does not receive broadcast signals either through the air or over cable. Although we do have A television (we are non-hippy Americans, after all) but it’s just hooked up to a DVD player and a Wii. On the rare occasions when our kids would see a broadcast they would ask us to pause it or rewind. They were so used to watching DVDs that they didn’t really understand how broadcast television worked.

We have a Wii but our kids almost never ask to play on it. It usually gets a workout after a visit to my parents’ retirement community and the happy times spent in the Wii bowling alley in their building. But our kids are not really obsessive gamers. Case in point, at least half the time spent in the Wii bowling alley is dedicated to playing (real-life) Ping-Pong, shuffleboard, and building Nerf ball catapults with exercise bands and stacking chairs. They harken to the call of the physical world.

So aside from pizza and a movie on Friday night and cartoons or Mythbusters on a Saturday morning our kids don’t get a lot of TV and video game screen time. However, what they are getting a lot more of these days is computer time.

The age of ten has been a magic number for my wife for a long time now. It’s the age at which our daughter can get her ears pierced – our son too, for that matter, if he’s interested, which he’s not. It is also the year when the kids are eligible to get a computer of their own. When our son turned ten we got him a previously owned iMac. He wasn’t too concerned with getting a computer in the first place but he was pleased to have it. As it turns out we are pleased to let him have it because he uses it almost exclusively for creative pursuits, art, animation, and writing. Because so little of what he does involves going out on the Internet we’re really not too concerned with his usage – with the notable exception of the times his more computer-savvy friends come over.

Our daughter is a different story entirely. She’s been desperate to get her hands on any computer and couldn’t wait for her tenth birthday. By the time it rolled around our son’s iMac was starting to give up the ghost and based on our daughter’s social mania we didn’t want her to have a computer in her room. Never mind that experts advise you to not let kids keep a computer in their room. We headed off some of the drama by getting each of them an iPod Touch for Christmas. There were a number of reasons for this:

  • Our son is in middle school and he can use the iPod to send text messages if he ever needs to get in touch with us. It’s a nice alternative to getting him a cell phone.
  • With the old iMac going away we were not interested in getting the kids each a new computer. We were planning to get a single computer for the both of them that would live on the kitchen desk and be used primarily for school work. The iPods allow them to have a device to play games and music (or audiobooks) so the computer can focus on work.
  • A nice bonus are the iPod cameras that are very helpful with their art projects or, in our daughter’s case, documenting every waking (and sleeping) moment of our pets’ lives.

We haven’t done ourselves any favors with the iPods because our daughter has discovered her inner gamer girl but that brings me to my final point.

As a parent the most powerful tool you have for limiting screen time is setting expectations. A long time ago we set expectations with our kids that none of us would watch any television (Netflix or otherwise) during the week. There was just too much work to be done and too many books to be read. When it comes to a computer the expectation is that it will live in a shared family space. This is harder to control with the iPods but the expectation there is a clear limit on available screen time. If they can’t stick to the time limit then the consequence is to lose the iPod for the evening and, by extension, audiobooks before bed.

Another important expectation is that they are too young to be spending time on social networks or playing games with interactive chat features. Just because their friends are all over Facebook, or whatever, doesn’t mean that they have to be. The way I see it they have to learn to navigate real world interactions first and this will serve them well in learning how to deal with online interactions later.

Finally, we use parental controls but it’s not necessary to go overboard. We talk with our kids about why we’re setting the limitations and try to establish trust on both sides. We trust them enough not to spy on their every move and they trust us enough to freely share what they’re doing. It’s just like when we were teaching them to cross the street. We want them to be safe, and they don’t want to get run over by a car.

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